Joe's Blog

The printed score and its limitations

June 20, 2018

A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne

He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation.   In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.”  Here are some of the issues we encountered.

Issue 1:

Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand.  This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down.  We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.

Issue 2:

The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note.  If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.

Issue 3:

In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note.  The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes.  The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do.  As a result we may find it harder than usual to  play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.

Issue 4:

The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.

Issue 5:

Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices.  This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room.  The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.

One can adduce many more such examples.

In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page.  That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is.  Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.

We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.

In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page.  And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort.  He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece.  But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities.  Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.

Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms.  It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag.  The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes.  They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm.  The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.

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